Why Private Billions Are Flowing Into Fusion

Why Private Billions Are Flowing Into Fusion

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Fusion power has a certain reputation, something in the realm of a holy grail, but not in a good way. There is a famous joke about nuclear fusion about how it never becomes a reality. You can Google it if you like. But really the moment we are in with nuclear fusion today is probably more exciting than it's ever been. There's more activity in the fusion world than ever, and not just in government research labs.

There's also an emerging private fusion industry that's attracted billions of dollars in capital in recent years. Governments and private investors alike realize that we've got to find a solution that's going to allow us to get to net zero targets. This is one of the hardest but most rewarding problems that humanity could work on. Ultimately, we all want the same thing. We want someone to put electricity on the grid from a fusion power station as quickly as possible. Frankly, the scale of the challenge, 3,000 gigawatts of fossil fuel to replace.

There's not many things that can do that. In fact, there may only be fusion that can really do that. And while many in the scientific community predict fusion power will take decades, some in the private fusion space believe we'll get there in just a few years, as soon as the 2030s. There is a lot of money going into these companies. And it's very interesting and exciting.

There are some I really love and some I would rather laugh about. The world is desperately searching for a replacement for fossil fuels. Now scientists and startups are betting that a commercial fusion reactor is finally in sight.

We are looking at visible light coming from the plasma. The plasma is this sort of 100,000 degrees temperature, but what you actually see is the coldest part. The hottest part you really don't see because it's too hot to emit light in the visible, isn't it? Yes. When I started, I was doing numerical modeling and then I realized that running the machine was a lot more interesting and a lot more fun for me. My work is stressful.

My work can be very demanding in terms of time. But this is still one of the most exciting places in the world. Here in Oxford, you'll find arguably the most successful fusion experiment on Earth, JET, the Joint European Torus, torus being the technical term for donut, which is how the reactor's shaped.

JET's been operating since the early '80s and only by 1997 were we really ready to try proper fusion. And we produced 16 megawatts of fusion power at the time which is like a few wind turbines. It's pretty significant. And it shows that fusion is possible. The 1997 experiment set records, but the reactor was only able to run for less than a second.

The team spent the next two decades cooking up a new approach. And in 2021, they gave it another shot. We always knew that we could do better. The last two days before Christmas were dedicated to these experiments, just this window of parameters where we could get more.

And we did. Three, two, one. JET more than doubled its previous record, producing more energy than any fusion experiment in history. We couldn't hug.

We couldn't high-five, nothing, because we have to be at two meters from each other. But, you know, it was obvious that this was a record. It was successful.

You could see that it was successful. It's a real step towards the ultimate promise of fusion, a cheap, emissions-free power source with virtually unlimited fuel. But maybe don't break out the champagne just yet. So in the 1997 experiments we produced a lot of power, but very transiently.

So it ramped up and then we lost control. Now we ramp up and sustain for five seconds. So what exactly makes fusion such a tough problem that sustaining it for five seconds constitutes a world record? Nuclear fusion.

Once it's perfected, fusion power will give us an unlimited supply of energy. So nuclear fusion is really what is happening inside the sun, where lots and lots of hydrogen atoms are moving at immense speeds. And every so often some of them fuse together to form helium. Now the process at the atomic level leads to a very small amount of loss in mass. And that little amount of mass actually generates a lot of energy.

And you do that millions and millions of times and you get the sun. Well look, we know fusion works. It's happening right now in our sun. But the reason it's happening in the sun is because of the mass of the sun. It's so massive, has this huge gravitational force which is pushing those isotopes of hydrogen close enough to fuse.

We obviously cannot recreate the mass of the sun here on Earth. So instead, we have to give that fuel even more energy. So we take a gas, we put a huge amount of energy into it, and that turns it into the fourth state of matter, plasma. If you consider water, for example, it's ice, then you warm it up then you get a fluid, and then you warm it further up, you get steam. And if you then increase the temperature even further then you get plasma.

Common plasmas include lightning, neon lights, and these things. We need temperatures 10 times larger than in the solar interior. So this is about 100, 200 million degrees. And only at those sort of temperatures do you get fusion to happen here on Earth. Heating something to 10 times the temperature of the sun is, to use the technical term, very hard.

Scientists have been working at it since the 1930s. The major breakthrough has been the first tokamak experiments in the 1960s in the former Soviet Union. They achieved several million degrees, and this was a real breakthrough.

Tokamaks is still one of the most popular ways to create fusion. That's what JET is, along with many other government-run reactors around the world. Using powerful magnets to contain the plasma, they've achieved temperatures of 100 million degrees and well beyond. But there's still one big milestone we need to reach before fusion power becomes a reality, net gain.

We need more power out than put in to heat the fuel in the first place. If we can't generate more power from fusion than we put in then the whole thing's a bust. Unfortunately, no one's ever done it, not even the brilliant minds at JET.

That's all kind of part of the plan though because JET isn't actually designed to solve fusion all by itself. It's just set up for a much bigger project called ITER. Uh, no, no. ITER. We are building this experimental machine in the south of France, ITER, which is going to be big. And it's the first one that will produce really more energy than what it consumes.

ITER is a massive international collaboration between 35 different countries. And everyone involved seems pretty confident it's going to get to net gain for the first time. So fusion's just around the corner, right? Well... With the ITER project, the first plasma is supposed to be created by 2025, but full fusion reaction isn't expected until 2035. So if ITER were the only bet that we were making on fusion then it would be a safe bet to say that nuclear fusion is going to take decades, and that's too long for the climate fight.

Even the most optimistic scientists think that fusion power may not be developed for 50 years, if then, if ever. Some think we can get there much faster. There's more than 30 private fusion companies around the world.

And it feels like every month or two there's another private company that springs up somewhere with another great idea about how to do this. The amount of funding going into fusion has also been scaling. There's more private funding going into fusion per year than there is federal government funding in the United States. The private fusion space is still small in terms of budget and people when compared to the mainstream. But if you look at the rate of progress, I would say it's much, much faster.

And I do think that it will be the private side that produces the first vital technology. Canadian fusion company General Fusion is steering away from the traditional tokamak design. If you have followed fusion at all in recent years you might have come across this steampunk octopus, an earlier prototype of their reactor.

It's very analogous to a fusion version of a diesel engine. So you basically, you have this very large cavity that's opened up inside of liquid metal. And into that liquid metal we inject a high temperature plasma of hydrogen. We can now perform this compression to heat up that plasma very much the same way you think about a piston compressing and heating the fuel in a diesel engine. This is a steam-driven compression process using an array of drivers. It compresses and heats this magnetized plasma to fusion conditions.

General Fusion's reactor would create brief bursts of fusion energy, an approach they hope will achieve net gain more easily than a tokamak. Founded in 2002, and supported by investors like Jeff Bezos, they're one of the furthest along in the field of fusion startups with plans to build a demonstrative plant by 2026 in Oxford on the same scientific campus as JET. This thing won't actually put megawatts on the grid, but it will prove that our approach to fusion in a power plant relevant environment can actually make fusion happen. Aiming to break ground in a matter of months, the company is running full tilt to work out all the kinks before showtime.

This is about 2/3 of the full scale that we'll need in our fusion demonstration plant. So it's mostly at this point a question of understanding the properties of the plasma and the plasma physics, to be confident that that will scale as we build the larger version. The alarms you hear when we start charging are alerting you to the fact that we're starting to charge this machine.

You hear a ping from when the plasma is interacting with the wall of the machine. You see, at the time you heard that thump, that's when the machine created the plasma. It's really exciting to see what's happening in the private fusion industry. Of course, I came to General Fusion because I like General Fusion's technology.

That's one man's opinion. I think we have, my view is the first really good shot on goal. But what really feels good is there's going to be lots of shots on goal, right? And I'm very confident we're going to score the win that we need. Not far from General Fusion's headquarters, you can find another fusion company. Helion Energy, one of the most buzzed about fusion companies in the world is hunkered down in some former Boeing hangers just outside Seattle. What we have tried to do at Helion is approach fusion from a different direction than a lot of other people.

We looked at the state of the art of what was being built in fusion and thought really there has to be a better way to get to commercial fusion faster. That might sound like hype, but there really is something radically different about Helion's reactor. Almost every idea behind a nuclear fusion startup or a company is to rely on the heat that is generated by fusion. And then converting that heat into steam, which is then used to turn turbines to generate electricity. Now, Helion says that it doesn't have to go through that heating and turning a turbine phase. So we do something called direct energy conversion where we take the magnetic energy of the fusion system, the charged particle energy of the fuel, and directly extract that to electricity.

We inject our fuel. We magnetically compress that fusion fuel. Fusion begins. It pushes back on that magnetic field. So, a good analogy is regenerative braking in your car.

We then directly regeneratively take the electricity back out of that fusion expansion and turn that into electricity. By cutting out the steam step for fusion we can radically increase the overall engineering efficiency of the system. We aim for a system now that can be much smaller, required a lot less of the complexity and the challenges, and really, from my point of view, a lot less of the time. That pitch was good enough to get Silicon Valley giants Sam Altman and Peter Thiel on board as investors. The company's $500 million Series E round makes them one of the best-funded fusion companies in the world.

They're also making one of the most ambitious predictions in the industry. The goal is to get this built by 2024, running, generating net electricity from fusion for the first time. Timeline is the driver. It's always the driver. And so if it's a question of, well, it could be a little bit better, but take an extra year, we say, no, we're going to make it a little bit worse but get it done a year earlier.

It's the Silicon Valley mentality of how can you build as absolutely as fast as possible? Yeah, help me with the gas pressure. Everything's isolated. You got the gas pressure. Fire. Firing.

Nice. Good shot. That was easy. Back in Oxford, First Light Fusion is taking what might be the most original approach of any fusion company, borrowing from a branch of fusion called inertial confinement. The idea behind inertial confinement is you hold plasma for a very short time in a very small space. So, one example of inertial confinement is where lasers, very high-powered lasers, are used to heat a very small amount of hydrogen for nanoseconds, that is billionths of a second.

This has been done before, most famously at the National Ignition Facility in California. But First Light has come up with a new approach. We call it projectile fusion.

We have a high velocity projectile. It flies in and it hits into our, what we call a target. And the target has to focus the energy of the projectile into the fusion fuel. This is one of our targets.

This is the key technology to our approach to fusion. So this is completely turned into a plasma by the force of the impact and the energy released. In a power plant, one of these targets would release enough energy to power the average UK home for over two years.

That sound. That's the projectile being fired out of this gas gun at around 15,000 miles an hour. To generate power you have to do that at a repetition rate. You have to do a certain number and it's the energy you release every time times by the frequency and that's the power.

So in our power plant design we'd be doing this about once every 30 seconds. So we recently showed fusion in our lab with a projectile driven approach for the first time. Just simply experimentally it's a big proof of concept that it can really work.

If we look at the actual amount of fusion we produced then that number by itself, it was 50 neutrons. And we're not hiding it. It's not very impressive. But the point is that's exactly what the simulations predicted. And that's what gives us the very rapid, we hope, pathway forwards to improve that number.

I hope we're not talking about 50 neutrons at the end of the year. So there's these disruptive technologies which are coming into our space, which is great. We want new ideas. We want people to come and tackle the big challenges that we face. There's lots of startup companies.

Some of them will fail. Some of them will go to the wall. Some of them will wildly succeed. That's just healthy. Some on the scientific research side of fusion are more critical of the startup phenomenon. Few private fusion companies have shown any results beyond fusing a few atoms.

And many scientists worry that these startups are promising too much. The cons in my mind are the promises by companies who either have a concept that we have already, for good reason, put apart and knew why they won't work, or completely new concepts. Some change them every other year. And then they still promise fusion energy by 2030 or something. And I don't like that too much because I'm afraid that if there are so many promises not kept that this would not be positive for fusion energy in general. If you look at the timescales that governments work at in research, that's completely different than the timescales that entrepreneurial private industry works at.

It's not that there's a problem there with government, but, you know, they're a different set of metrics there. They're largely research-driven organizations. You need look no further than commercial access to space. SpaceX.

They've created what people thought would never be possible, which is reusable rockets. NASA was never able to achieve that because they weren't motivated by the same things. And so when it comes to the last mile of commercialization, that's where you really need to hand the baton from government to private industry.

From what I know, some of the private sector is very serious and is bringing significant capital and significant engineering advances. It needs to promise things on the time on a realistic timescale. So, not next year. And the timescale of about 20 years is realistic.

It remains to be seen whether the Silicon Valley VC type approach will actually get us to commercial fusion faster. One thing is for sure though, progress, however slow and incremental, is being made. And if we're going to get to a fusion powered future, we're probably going to need both the painstaking research and the risky new ideas.

I think the rate of progress is really driven by the imperative. And to be honest, I mean, let's just be honest as a society, over the last 20 or 30 years we've been pretty comfortable with burning fossil fuels. The fact that we have to stop it now drives the imperative. This is the most important question for mankind because, I mean, you need electricity or energy for everything.

We have a lot of developing countries, and if these countries want to come to our standards of living, there's no way other than provide them with cheap energy, and better, CO2 neutral. Otherwise, we have a climate crisis. Each fusion technology has a slightly different flavor in terms of its ultimate value proposition. And so I think that you're going to see a portfolio of technologies being commercialized over the coming decades that address different parts of the market. And the market is huge and diverse.

The total addressable market for fusion is on the order of $1 trillion a year. It might be decades before fusion becomes a reality, but it's the kind of cheap, unlimited power that you would want to give a civilization to be able to do all the things it wants to. Imagine if you could make a lot of rocket fuel to create an entire fleet of rockets that would go and mine asteroids because, you know, at some point we're going to run out of metals. Or you could remove existing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back down and bury it deep underground. That process requires a ton of energy, but if you were able to create nuclear fusion you could imagine restoring the Earth's atmosphere to pre-industrial levels.

And these are the kinds of application that really cheap and clean energy can enable humanity to do. I want my kids to have a future that has the possibilities that I've had. So I hope we get fusion, and I think private, public, it all needs to come together because this is worth it.

2022-07-17 12:05

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